A Magnificent Description of the Immigrant Church of 1900-1950

The great influx of Catholic immigrants from Europe brought exponential growth to the Catholic population of this country, making Catholicism the single largest religious group by far. Those Catholic immigrants gathered together in ethnic parishes, creating ethnic neighborhoods in which faith and culture were knitted together. They sought survival in a land that seemed at times to be hostile to them and their faith. This caused Catholics to be fiercely loyal to the faith and made the parish the hub of the community, the center around which all else revolved.

Alas, this vivid reality receded between the 1950s and the 1980s, leaving large structures behind that have proved difficult to maintain and are now being closed in large numbers. Sweeping social changes, a cultural revolution, and the slow assimilation of Catholics into the wider American culture led to the demise of a system that is hard not to admire for its organization and effectiveness.

How things collapsed so quickly is a matter for some speculation, but even within the genius of the ethnic Catholic system, there were the seeds of its own destruction, for the fierce clinging of Catholics to their faith was as much due to ethnic bonds as it was to the religion itself.

As we shall see in the description below, and as most bishops can attest, shepherding Catholics is much like herding cats. This struggle is not a new one. It was well on display even in the glory years. Despite the outward appearances of deep unity, there were many fissures just beneath the surface.

As a brief study of this, I would like to quote somewhat extensively from the first chapter of a book by John McGreevy: Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the 20th Century Urban North. McGreevy rather vividly describes the strength of the immigrant Church but also the more negative trends within that powerful system of ethnic Catholicism.

The author’s work is presented in bold, black italics, while my remarks are in plain red text. I have reworked the order of some of his reflections and am presenting excerpts from a much longer chapter. I hope you’ll find his description of the urban ethnic Church as thrilling and vivid as I do.

[From the late 1800s through the middle part of the 20th century] successive waves of European immigrants peopled a massive and impressive church largely in the northern cities of America. In 1920, Catholics in Chicago could worship at 228 Catholic parishes … The [area of the city called] “back of the yards” area physically exemplified this. There, residents could choose between 11 Catholic churches in the space of little more than a square mile: two Polish, one Lithuanian, one Italian, two German, one Slovak, one Croatian, two Irish, and one Bohemian. … Their church buildings soared over the frame houses and muddy streets of the impoverished neighborhood in a triumphant display of architectural and theological certitude. I have always appreciated that older Church buildings reflect a time of greater theological certitude. While one may criticize the presence of opulent church structures in poor neighborhoods, the immigrants built them eagerly, demonstrating a priority of the faith that is much less evident today.

[Even as late as the] 1950s, a Detroit study found 70% of the city’s Catholics claiming to attend services once a week as opposed to only 33% of the city’s white Protestants and 12% of the city’s Jews. Catholics really used to pack the churches. I remember as a youth if you were late for Mass you had to stand in the back.

The Catholic parishes, whether they were Polish, Italian, Portuguese, or Irish, simply dominated the life and activities of the community with quite popular and well attended programs. Yale sociologists investigating in the 1930s, professed amazement at the ability of priest to define norms of everyday social behavior for the church’s members.

The Catholic world supervised by these priests was disciplined and local. Many parishes sponsored enormous neighborhood carnivals each year. Most parishes also contained a large number of formal organizations including youth groups, mothers’ clubs, parish choirs, and fraternal organizations—each with a priest moderator, the requisite fundraisers, and group masses. Parish sports teams, even for the youngest boys, shaped parish identity, with fierce (and to outsiders incongruent) rivalries developing in sports leagues between parishes. CYO rivalries were legendary even into the 1980s in many areas.

These dense social networks centered themselves around an institutional structure of enormous magnitude. Virtually every parish in the northern cities included a church (often of remarkable scale), a convent, a parochial school, a rectory, and occasionally, ancillary gymnasiums or auditoriums. Even hostile observers professed admiration for the marvelous organization and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church, which carefully provided every precinct, ward, and district with churches, cathedrals, and priests. The parish I attended as a boy in Glenview, IL (North Chicago) had a rectory that was externally a replica of Mt. Vernon. The parish plant took up an entire city block. Every grade of the parochial school had its own separate building. There was an indoor pool, a credit union, a large indoor “playdium” that allowed for everything from roller-skating to basketball. The Church and convent were also magnificent.

Brooklyn alone contained 129 parishes and over 100 Elementary schools. In New York City more generally, 45 orders of religious men, ranging from the Jesuits to the Passionist Fathers, lived in community homes. Nuns managed 25 hospitals. The clergy and members of religious orders supervised over 100 high schools, as well as elementary schools that enrolled 214,000 students. The list of summer camps, colleges and universities, retreat centers, retirement homes, seminaries, and orphanages was daunting.

St. Sabina in Chicago was a typical example of an immigrant parish. The parish was founded in 1916 upon request by Irish-Americans. The male members of the 7000-member parish were mostly policemen, streetcar operators, lower management persons, and teachers. Within the tenure of the very first pastor, the parish erected a church costing $600,000 and contracted the work to members of the parish to provide jobs during the depression. They built the school, convent, and rectory as well as founding a staggering array of athletic, religious, and social organizations. By 1937 the Parish plant also included a community center with a full basketball court that seated 1800 people. Attendance at roller-skating shows often climbed to over 10,000. Parishioners packed the church and hall for 11 separate Sunday masses, and ushers organized large crowds at multiple Friday evening novena services. $600,000 in the 1930s was an enormous sum of money, equivalent to nearly 9 million in 2013 dollars. I am presuming that the $600,000 was for the whole plant, not just the Church.

[The Catholic system of neighborhood-based parishes had little equivalence among the Protestants.] When examining the splendidly organized system constructed by Roman Catholics, Protestant analysts bemoaned the parochial chaos in the fragmentation of membership which the Protestant groups had experienced. The general Protestant lack of geographical parishes made it impossible to know who should be responsible, or to hold anyone responsible for the church and of any given area. Synagogues faced similar dilemmas. Most synagogues drew members from a broad area, and competed with neighboring synagogues in terms of ritual and programs.

[In the immigrant years, the Catholic parish made, cemented, and ruled over a local neighborhood]. An observer noted how the church building occupied an entire block, adding that the building’s resounding bells, with its immense throngs of worshipers, with its great tower so built that illumined, it reveals by night the outlines of the cross help define the area. Put another way, the neighborhoods were created not found. For the parishioners, the neighborhood was all Catholic, given the cultural ghetto constructed by the parish. Yes, the Church was the true hub of the community.

Catholics enacted this religiously informed neighborhood identity through both ritual and physical presence. A powerful indicator of the importance of the Catholic parish was found in the answer of Catholics (and some non-Catholics) to the question “where you from?” Throughout the urban North, American Catholics answered the question with parish names—Visitation, Resurrection, St. Lucy’s, etc. All of this meant that Catholics were significantly more likely to remain in a particular neighborhood than the non-Catholics. [And Catholic neighborhoods resisted strong demographic shifts and swings much longer than other urban neighborhoods.] Naming the neighborhood for the parish was common in Chicago.

For American Catholics, neighborhood, parish, and religion were constantly intertwined. Catholic parishes routinely sponsored parades and processions through the streets of the parish, claiming both the parish and its inhabitants as sacred ground. Catholic leaders also deliberately created a Catholic counterpart for virtually every secular organization. The assumption was that the Catholic faith could not flourish independent of the Catholic milieu; schools, societies, and religious organizations were seen as pieces of a larger cultural project. The instinct that faith and culture must be intertwined is a sound one. It is clear that as Catholic culture waned, so did the faith. More broadly, as a Judeo-Christian culture in the U.S. has waned, so has belief and practice of the faith.

[Catholic life was also far deeper in daily life than most Protestant expressions.] Where both Jews and Protestants emphasized the reading of text, Catholics developed multiple routes to the sacred. Theologians describe this as a “sacramental” imagination, willing to endow seemingly mundane daily events with the possibility of grace. When asked, “Where is God?” Catholic children responded “Everywhere!” God was most visible during the Mass, when the parish community shared Christ’s body and blood. But God was also visible in the saints lining the walls of the church, the shrines dotting the yards of Catholic homes, the statue of Mary carted from house to house, the local businesses shuttering their doors on the afternoon of Good Friday, the cross on the church steeple looming above the neighborhood row houses, the priest blessing individual homes, the nuns watching pupils on the playground while silently reciting the rosary, the religious processions through the streets, and the bells of the church ringing each day over the length of the parish. A magnificent description of sacramental imagination here. It is the genius of Catholicism. Unfortunately, to our peril, we have lost of lot of it. Thankfully, though, we have recovered some of it in recent years.

McGreevy then goes on to describe some of the fissures that would later come home to roost. One of these was a fierce independence and near refusal to live within the wider Church:

Each parish was a small planet whirling through its orbit, oblivious to the rest of the ecclesiastical solar system. … All parishes, formerly territorial or not, tend to attract parishioners of the same national background. The very presence of the church and school buildings encouraged parishioners to purchase homes nearby helping to create Polish, Bohemian, Irish, and Lithuanian enclaves within the larger neighborhood.

[But] The situation hardly fostered neighborhood unity. Observers noted that various clergy had nothing but scorn for their fellow priests. Pastors were notorious for refusing to cooperate with (or even visit) neighboring parishes. A Washington Post reporter agreed, “the Lithuanians favored the Poles as enemies, the Slovaks are anti-Bohemian. The Germans were suspected by all four nationalities. The Jews were generally abominated, and the Irish called everyone else a foreigner.” It was a kind of extreme parochialism.

Most of the parishes also included parochial schools staffed by an order of nuns of the same ethnicity as the parish in which they served. Eastern European newcomers resolutely maintained their own schools instead of filling vacant slots in nearby Irish or German schools. Even I, born in 1961, remember how Irish and Italian Catholics were barely on speaking terms with one another. In one parish I knew, an Irish girl married an Italian man, causing quite a stir. After their marriage, the couple could not worship in either of their home parishes, but had to find a third.

A 1916 Census survey revealed 2230 Catholic parishes using only a foreign language in their services, while another 2535 alternated between English and the parishioners’ native tongue. Even small towns divided the Catholic population into Irish, Italian, and Portuguese parishes. Detroit’s Bishop Michael Gallagher, himself the son of Irish immigrants, authorized the founding of 32 national parishes out of a total of 98. In 1933, Detroit Catholics could hear the Gospel preached in 22 different languages. It was a kind of Balkanized scene.

Episcopal attempts to quash national parishes, schools, and societies only strengthened national identities. After one conflict with the local bishop and the Polish community, one participant in the revolt noted that such revolts “gave proof that we will not permit anyone to destroy national dignity, pride, and traditions. Another statement from a Polish group warned of ominous consequences if Poles were to be “deprived of the care of a Bishop from among our own race.” Cardinal Medeiros of Boston was never really accepted by that Archdiocese because he was not Irish. His painful tenure there (1970-1983) is detailed by Philp Lawler in his book The Faithful Departed. And this was long after ethnic rivalries had largely abated in the U.S. The fact is, most American bishops knew that they had a huge mess on their hands; beginning in the 1950s, they began to limit the formation of national parishes and even outright closed some that were smaller and more contentious. To this day a few breakaway Polish National Churches still refuse the authority of the local bishop.

Rather than face outright revolt, bishops working with national groups generally assigned an auxiliary bishop or senior cleric to handle pastoral appointments and mediate intramural disputes. Outright revolt was a real possibility. Rebellion against Church authority did not begin in 1968. It had roots going way back. True dissent from Church teaching was rare, but the rebellion against lawful Church authority likely set the stage for later revolt against what that authority taught.

Despite Episcopal concerns … 55 percent of Catholics in Chicago worshiped at national parishes as late as 1936. In addition, over 80 percent of the clergy received assignments in parishes matching their own national background.

Overall the period of ethnic Catholicism is glorious to behold. Such a vibrant and tight knit expression and experience of the faith! But, it would seem, there was also a dark side.

The fierce and proud independence of the ethnic parishes reacted poorly with the rebellion against authority that was coming in American culture. Today, many of the problems that existed then have only grown: the resistance to the authority of the bishop, the insistence on a perfect “designer parish,” and the tendency to tuck the faith behind other loyalties that have taken the place of ethnicity (e.g., politics). These things were certainly simmering in the vibrant ethnic years, and sometimes they weren’t just simmering—they were right out in the open. Yes, shepherding Catholics is like herding cats.

Still, I’m sorry I missed that period of time. At the end of the day, though, we ought to resist overly idealizing any era. Scripture says, Say not, “How is it that former times were better than these?” For it is not in wisdom that you ask this (Eccles 7:10).

Is Multiculturalism Just Another Form of Moral Relativism?

I usually think of multiculturalism as a fairly benign concept wherein we are asked to appreciate the enrichment that can come when many cultures have input into the life of this country. The fact is America has always been a rich tapestry of cultures. The English, French, and Spanish colonist interacted with the native populations, they also brought African slaves with them. In the late 1800s through the mid 1900s waves of immigrants from almost every European country also added to the mix. The group we usually call “Whites” today is actually an assimilation of many very different cultures. My father’s generation (b. 1928) made very sharp distinctions between Irish, Italians, Poles, and so forth. Many of these groups lived in distinct neighborhoods, attended different Catholic parishes, and intermarriage was almost unthinkable between them at the early stages.  In more recent years, immigrants from the South, from Africa and the Far East have also added to tapestry and the “look” of America. And whatever friction has sometimes existed between various groups, ethnicity and races, I have no doubt that we have been enriched by our interaction and life together in this land.

This is the multiculturalism I know and what I usually mean by the term.

Apparently the experience in Europe has been less satisfactory and we now see some European leaders calling for stricter curbs on multicultural expression. For example, in France the wearing of certain Muslim Garb, especially the Burqa, has been banned.

In the video below, a commentator gives a much more sober assessment of multiculturalism. To some extent I would describe his approach to be in the form of a rant that intentionally overstates the case in a sometimes humorous, even satirical way. It sometimes helps to understand the genre when viewing such viewpoints. So you may wish to read up on the genre of “rant” HERE.

Nevertheless the purpose of “rant,” though overstated and sometimes satirical, is to make a point that the orator considers important. And what I take away from the video is that some distinctions and limits are necessary when it comes to multiculturalism. Without these, we may find multiculturalism fails as a lived reality and may rest on premises that are unacceptable. Here are just a two concerns:

1. Multiculturalism must be rooted in a fundamentally shared vision and in something higher than any individual culture in the mix. When people and groups immigrate, they bring with them their own traditions and culture. Fine, herein lies a richness. But they also come to a new experience, a new culture, shared by those already in the land, which can also enrich them. There must be certain fundamentals to which all in a culture agree to share. Without this there are enclaves which set up, and friction is inevitable. Here in America there have traditionally been two fundamental visions that have united us and helped us to overcome our differences and experience multicultural success: the American Dream, and a fundamental belief in the existence of God.

The American Dream, while difficult to reduce to a sentence or two, is essentially rooted in the economic freedom to work, run and own businesses, own property and participate in the political process without harassment. It includes freedom of speech and assembly, basic equality,  and all the rights described in our Constitution. Ultimately most Americans see its fulfillment for them personally when they are economically independent, and able to own a home. It would seem that the American Dream is still largely intact, as a shared vision. I think most people who come to this land are still looking for just these things. They admire our freedoms, our prosperity, and basic form of government. Many take enormous risks to come here and take part in the dream. This existence of this common vision causes a shared unity that makes multiculturalism workable.

As for a shared belief in God, this has become frayed in recent decades. It still remains true that the vast majority of Americans still believe in God, but an increasingly strident form of secularism threatens to undermine the shared “cultus” of our culture. “Cultus” or “cult” here does not mean what modern English has assigned as a narrow, closed and often extreme group, engaged in strange religious practices. Originally in Latin, and even in English, “cult” meant simply a shared faith among the people. That “cult” is at the heart of the word culture is no accident. For every culture needs someone and something above it to which, and to whom, it must answer. That Someone, we in the West, have called the God of the Bible. Without this cult, it is questionable that a culture can survive for there is nothing and no one higher than it to unite it. That Western culture is in serious decline at the same time that secularism is on the rise is, likely, no coincidence.

Here in America, most of our immigrants are Catholics and Christians. Hence they share in the basic Judeo/Christian view or “cultus.” The jury is still out on whether secularization will continue. But for now, the vast majority of Americans still share a common belief in the God of the Bible, even if they do not live this faith perfectly.

In Europe the situation seems quite grave, and the Pope has described that the lights are going out all over Europe. With high secularism and low birthrates among Europeans, the Muslims are largely poised to replace European culture. But it is questionable that the Muslim immigrants value what we call Western culture and their “cultus” is not the same “cultus” that gave rise to Europe. Hence the multicultural tensions are growing fiercer, since there is no shared faith, and no European version of the “American Dream” that unites new immigrants and traditional Europeans.

But here in America, multiculturalism largely still “works,” though threats are on the horizon. This does not mean that there are not certain tensions.  But there always have been and there still seems to be a way to work through it.

One of the flash points here is the question of language. And, although I often hear fears expressed by some that “Spanish is taking over,” my own experience is that, in every immigrant family I know, the kids all know English. Hence, I am not personally concerned that Spanish will take over. English remains the language of access in this country. Thankfully, it seems we have gotten over the silly experiment in Education of running bilingual school systems. As far as I can tell, immigrant children are immersed in English and quickly expected to take their seats in an English-speaking classroom. But some of you may correct me on this.

2. While accepting the benefits of multiculturalism, we must avoid the trap that everything is equally valid The orator in the video below makes the case that multiculturalism is just another form of moral relativism. I am not sure that I accept the word “just” in his argument. But there is a danger that some of the premises do come from moral relativism or tend to be reinforced by unhealthy notions associated with it.

I’ll just be bold (as a Westerner) and say that there is something essentially superior to the what we have come to call “western culture.” We are not perfect, and sadly, western culture does seem to be in significant decay at this time. But historically western culture has produced the highest standard of living, had the most stable economies, produced the most just and equitable forms of democratic government, has a rich deposit of learning, and brought forth a great expression of the dignity of the individual. I, (Christian that I am) attribute a lot of this to faith, for it was the Church that established most of the great universities, the hospitals, the scientific method, and so forth.  The Church also, through the tireless work of monks and others helped to preserve the works of classical antiquity which has so blessed us and served as the basis for the high standard of living and the flourishing of the sciences we have today.

As I say, I’ll just be bold and probably “politically incorrect” but western culture is the finest flower in the garden,  given our history and what we have contributed to the world. This does not mean that there are no excesses in us, or that other cultures are nothing at all. I do not the deny the World Wars and other sad chapters. But the fact that so many flock to live in the West, especially in America, is silent testimony to the greatness of what we are, and have to offer. They are often fleeing poor economies, corrupt dictatorships and terrible living conditions. To be sure, they bring gifts to us in their cultural heritage and are able to add to rich tapestry of the West, especially in America. But that too is part of the greatness of the West, tolerance, and an open marketplace of ideas.

It is a fact that the West as we have known it is in fairly serious decline. Some centuries ago de Tocqueville noted that for democracy to thrive, morality and self-control of the populace had to be presumed.  The fact is, without a general level of moral self-governance, democracy and freedom cannot thrive. For the genius of Western style democracy is that power and control are shifted from the central state more to individual. Freedom is wonderful, but it requires self-control of the populace. If we are not willing to curb our behaviors, proper order and the common good are threatened and freedoms begin to be lost. It is no coincidence that, as bad behaviors begin to proliferate, government grows and freedoms are limited, Today, often due to the breakdown of personal behavior and a sense of personal responsibility, there are increasing demands for laws and for the government intervention. But the tradeoff is that personal freedoms are eroded, taxes increase and fears grow about further intrusions as a litigious attitude grows. Whether the great experience of western culture will continue depends largely on whether we can reclaim some of our lost moral code and live by it without a government insisting on it.

But as it is conceived, I will say again that western culture is the finest flower of the modern world. It is threatened but it is wholly worth saving as the best hope for future generations.

The fact is we ought not become moral relativists in this matter and, as others come to join us, it is not wrong that we insist they observe what is best about us and seek to join, rather than replace what we are. With this premise multiculturalism is enriching and to be celebrated.

OK, please remember this is a discussion. I am not pontificating here, just starting a discussion. Please add your own views, additions, distinctions and so forth!

As for this video remember, it is in the style of a rant. I do not know who Andrew Klavon is, this is the first I have seen of him. Hence, I do not endorse everything he says or may have said elsewhere. I just found his video here  to provoke thought and to help me clarify what I think of multiculturalism .